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Teaching WWI: let’s not go over the top

Blog Editor, IOE Digital9 January 2014

 Jerome Freeman and Stuart Foster
As we approach the centenary of the First World War, it comes as no surprise that the controversy around how it should be remembered is gathering pace. The debate heated up over the past week with Education Secretary Michael Gove’s intervention in the Daily Mail, criticising so called ‘left wing’ historians and TV programmes such as Blackadder for depicting the war as a ‘misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite’. This view, he argued, has served to “denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”.  He also argued that the ‘pitiless’ and ‘aggressive expansionism’ of Germany was to blame for the outbreak of the war.
Predictably, those criticised have hit back. Sir Tony Robinson, Blackadder’s Private Baldrick, responded: “It’s not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War. When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool”. Historians R J Evans and Margaret MacMillan challenged his ‘overly nationalistic’ interpretation of Britain’s role in the war, in which the gallant British Tommy joined up to defend the western liberal order.
One of the challenges for the IOE in running the Government’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme will be to help teachers and their pupils to engage with these different and increasingly controversial interpretations, to think critically about the war’s causes, to try to understand how the war was perceived at the time, and to go beyond some of the popular myths that have since emerged.
We have been working with the Universities of Northumbria and Exeter to carry out the first ever national survey of history teachers into how the First World War is taught in schools. The results of the data analysis, due later this term, will give us an indication of the extent to which teachers feel confident enough to tackle some of the complexities of the First World War in the classroom and beyond (whether that is on the battlefield sites of the Western Front or in their local communities).
The results should also reveal the degree to which pupils are given opportunities to pursue their study of the First World War through historical enquiry and whether they are given access to a sufficient variety of sources to allow for detailed and meaningful investigation.
From our perspective we want to move beyond a simple process of handing on a fixed narrative to young people and simply telling pupils what they should know. Rather, we want pupils and teachers to ask difficult questions and actively find things out. A really positive outcome of the project will be achieved when pupils and teachers share the results of their genuine historical enquiries with their schools and local communities.
In addition, our plan is to encourage schools not only to conduct local enquiries but also to ask the big questions, stimulate debate, address controversy and challenge accepted interpretations. To do this we are working with all the major Centenary Partners (such as the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and a number of leading historians and commentators. One of our biggest challenges is to make a profound and complex history accessible to teenagers, many of whom will be 13 or 14 when studying the Great War. As educators we believe we can achieve this ambitious goal and ultimately help schools approach and understand the First World War in more sophisticated, thoughtful and meaningful ways.
Jerome Freeman is director of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Project. Stuart Foster is executive director of the project.

Encouraging a deeper understanding of the Great War

Blog Editor, IOE Digital26 July 2013

Stuart Foster
Recently, the Government unveiled its plans to mark the centenary of the First World War. £50 million has been earmarked for a five-year commemoration. The first group of events on 4 August 2014 include a service for Commonwealth leaders at Glasgow Cathedral. More national events will follow on the anniversaries of key dates including the Gallipoli landings, the Battle of Jutland, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the first day of Passchendaele and Armistice Day.
A key part of the plans will be the opportunity for teachers and pupils from every state-funded school in England to visit the battlefield sites on the Western Front between 2014 and 2019. On 10 June, Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, confirmed that the IOE, along with the STS Travel group, had been awarded the £5.3 million contract to run this prestigious project.
She said: “On 4 August 1914 we entered the war – a war like no other the world had seen. It is right we remember and mark the centenary of this momentous day in the world’s history, bringing its importance alive for younger generations and remembering the price that was paid by all involved.”
The Government’s plans for the centenary have already attracted some controversy, particularly for what Sir Max Hastings describes as its “non-judgemental” approach, with little attempt being made by politicians to focus on the reasons behind the First World War for fear perhaps of upsetting Germany, one of the UK’s key EU partners.
Speaking on the Today Programme, he said: “they were not willing to say outright what the historians I most respect believe, which is the First World War was not morally different from the Second World War – it was an unspeakable experience for Europe and the British people, but it was for a cause worth fighting. The centenary ought to be an opportunity to try to explain to a new generation reared on Blackadder and not much more just what the war was about.”
One of the challenges for the IOE in creating an education programme to complement the centenary battlefield tours will be to help teachers and their pupils to engage with different historians’ interpretations of the First World War, to think critically about the causes, how the war was perceived at the time, and to go beyond the popular cultural view that has emerged since that the war was an exercise in futility exacerbated by incompetent military leadership. It is worth remembering, for example, that Field Marshal Haig, famously characterised by Alan Clark as one of the officer “donkeys” who led the foot-soldier “lions”, was given a hero’s welcome at the conclusion of the war. Sir Hew Strachan, a prominent First World War historian, argued in The Sunday Times that, “there has to be some engagement with the fact that the war was fought by a united country which came out on the winning side. Simply saying that it was a waste fails to tackle the issue as it was understood at the time.”
As a starting point, the IOE is working with the Universities of Northumbria and Exeter to carry out the first ever national survey of English and history teachers into how the First World War is currently taught in schools. Through this it should be possible to gauge the level of understanding that exists, what perceptions teachers and pupils have of the First World War, and what needs to be done to develop an education programme that tackles head on some of these issues. What really matters is that current and future generations of young people begin to understand the war properly and appreciate that its reverberations are still felt today.